The Meaning of Hezbollah: Does anybody care?

Nowadays, let’s face it, it’s just not PC for Muslims to question Hezbollah’s motives or raise doubts about the efficacy of supporting them. One doesn’t need to travel too far into the Australian Muslim community to see that everyone loves Nasrallah. Even the handpicked members of the government’s Muslim Reference Committee — card-carrying moderates, if ever there were — are demanding that the government delist them as a terrorist organisation. The timing is impeccable: say nothing when they were originally listed, but as soon as they start raining missiles on the “Zionist Entity”, we start demanding the government reconsider its assessment. With timing like that, it’s no wonder we are misunderstood.

Hezbollah, we are repeatedly told, are not terrorists but ‘freedom fighters’. They are defending Lebanon against an Israeli invasion. However, they are not simply a self-funded, self-armed, self-inspired localised grassroots militia. They clearly have better equipment and training than even the Lebanese standing army and may even eclipse the other Arab states in their on-the-ground capability. Certainly, they seem to be doing what no Arab army has done in living memory and that is put up a credible fight against the Israeli Defence Force. This is almost entirely due to the fact that they receive their funding, inspiration, training, weapons and direction from Iran.

As Hezbollah continues to enjoy rising support across the Muslim world — including amongst Australian Muslims — and as it seems increasingly likely to emerge from this conflict with even more popular support than it entered it, we need to consider what this really means. Particularly, what this means for Arabs and Sunnis who will find that an ancient political and religious rival of the Sunni Arabs — the Persians — may become the new Alpha Male on the geopolitical block.

Regardless of their rhetoric, Iran remains a very tough neighborhood for someone who wants to follow the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad. A cursory reading of some human rights reports on Iran provides an insight into how the Shi’a leadership of that state views its Sunni minority. Human Rights Watch report, for example, that:

Sunni Kurds have seen their aspirations for greater autonomy and respect of their rights to religious freedom denied. Friday prayer leaders, even in the Sunni mosques, are appointed by the central authorities. Shi’a proselytizing is encouraged. Several prominent Sunni leaders, including Kurds and Baluchis, have been killed in recent years in circumstances that suggest the involvement of the authorities in their deaths. The recent arrests and killings of Baluchi religious leaders is taking on the appearance of a concerted campaign to suppress Baluchi claims for parity for Sunni Islam and respect for Baluchi cultural and linguistic traditions.

And, despite there being over one million Sunni Muslims living in Tehran, there is not a single Sunni mosque in the city.

It seems to me that what we are seeing in Lebanon is both a proxy war and a PR war. The proxy war is being fought between Iran, and the United States and Israel. Unfortunately, the Lebanese people are paying the immediate price for Iran’s decision to use their country as a staging ground for its offensive. On the other hand, the PR war seems to be an attempt by Iran to spread its influence in the Arab, and particularly Sunni, world. Many Arab governments have long talked tough about Israel but failed to “walk the talk”. Then, suddenly, the Shi’a Hezbollah arrive and they start doing what no Sunni Arab has done since the formation of the state of Israel: put up a real defence against Israeli forces and also prove they can fight back. And then, as we even witness on the streets of Melbourne or Sydney, Hezbollah (and Iran) become heroes to a Muslim nation that has become so obsessed with the Jews, that we can’t see anything else.

Mark Steyn, not someone that I would normally find common cause with on these issues, summarises the state of play rather succintly:

But Saudi-Egyptian-Jordanian opportunism on Palestine has caught up with them: It’s finally dawned on them that a strategy of consciously avoiding resolution of the “Palestinian question” has helped deliver Gaza, and Lebanon and Syria, into the hands of a regime that’s a far bigger threat to the Arab world than the Zionist Entity. Cairo and Co. grew so accustomed to whining about the Palestinian pseudo-crisis decade in decade out that it never occurred to them that they might face a real crisis one day: a Middle East dominated by an apocalyptic Iran and its local enforcers, in which Arab self-rule turns out to have been a mere interlude between the Ottoman sultans and the eternal eclipse of a Persian nuclear umbrella. The Zionists got out of Gaza and it’s now Talibanistan redux. The Zionists got out of Lebanon and the most powerful force in the country (with an ever-growing demographic advantage) are Iran’s Shia enforcers. There haven’t been any Zionists anywhere near Damascus in 60 years and Syria is in effect Iran’s first Sunni Arab prison bitch. For the other regimes in the region, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria are dead states that have risen as vampires.

Reading the recent speechs of the Iranian political leadership, it seems clear that they are intent on pursuing a nuclear program that will ultimately culminate in the development of nuclear weapons. If the pronouncements of the Iranian President are any indication, these weapons will be used against Iran’s enemies. If the people of Lebanon are today paying a price for the proxy war on their doorstep, the entire Arab world will pay an even greater price if an emboldened and nuclear-armed Persian state initiates a nuclear war against Israel. And this is to say nothing about what Iran might attempt against Saudi Arabia whom it has long seen at its principle rival in the ethno-religious equivalent of the Cola Wars: an attempt by fundamentalist Sunnis (represented largely by Saudi Arabia) and fundamentalist Shi’a (represented by Iran) to promote each of their respective religious offerings as the ‘real thing’ to the world’s one billion Muslims.

As the President warned:

Today, the Iranian people is the owner of nuclear technology. Those who want to talk with our people should know what people they are talking to. If some believe they can keep talking to the Iranian people in the language of threats and aggressiveness, they should know that they are making a bitter mistake. If they have not realized this by now, they soon will, but then it will be too late. Then they will realize that they are facing a vigilant, proud people.”

A further question is as to Hezbollah’s sectarian agenda. Clearly, they are a Shi’ite milita funded and armed by a regime that seems to have little real tolerance for Sunnis. In Iraq, we have the precedent of Shi’a death squads, running under the auspices of the Iraqi Interior Ministry, targeting Sunnis. There is naturally a fear that if the Iranian-backed Shi’a of Iraq are behaving in such a way, then the Iranian-backed Shi’a of Lebanon will likewise seize the opportunity to settle 1,000 year old scores if they are able.

One of the best pieces on the subject that goes some of the way to detailing Hezbollah’s position with regards to other Muslims and other religions comes from Michael Young in the New York Times. Young is the opinion editor for Beiruit’s Daily Star, an editor with the libertarian Reason magazine, and someone who knows what he is talking about. Unlike most of us, the longtime resident of Lebanon is a witness to the daily cut and thrust of Lebanese politics.

Young makes the point that there is a schism between, on one side, the Shi’ite Hezbollah and, on the other, Christians, Sunnis and Druze. Whereas the latter supported the end of Syrian occupation and political interference in Lebanon that followed the murder of Rafik al-Hariri, the former have been staunch supporters of Syrian interests in Lebanon.

The division has now been exacerbated by Hezbollah apparently drawing Lebanon into the current conflict with Israel. Whilst it may be true that many Lebanese, in the interests of national unity, now support Hezbollah in their fight against Israel, there has been some criticism of Hezbollah’s so-called ‘adventurism’ both within and without Lebanon. This, and the selective bombing of Shi’a targets by Israel, has only increased tensions.

As Young writes:

As the violence continues, retribution is in the air. Israel has focused its attacks on Shiites, leaving Sunni, Christian and Druse areas (though not their long-term welfare) relatively intact. Amid all the destruction, many a representative of the March 14 movement has denounced Hezbollah’s ‘‘adventurism,’’ provoking Shiite resentment. As one Hezbollah combatant recently told The Guardian: ‘‘The real battle is after the end of this war. We will have to settle score with the Lebanese politicians. We also have the best security and intelligence apparatus in this country, and we can reach any of those people who are speaking against us now. Let’s finish with the Israelis, and then we will settle scores later.’’

“Settling scores” has an ominous ring to it. Do they mean that they will attempt to settle these scores using democracy; perhaps running for election in Sunni and Christian suburbs of Beiruit? Or do they mean that they will violently settle scores in the same way as some elements in post-Saddam Iraq have attempted to settle scores?

Young continues,

This essentially repeated what Hassan Nasrallah told Al Jazeera in an interview broadcast a week after the conflict began: ‘‘If we succeed in achieving the victory . . . we will never forget all those who supported us at this stage. . . . As for those who sinned against us . . . those who made mistakes, those who let us down and those who conspired against us . . . this will be left for a day to settle accounts. We might be tolerant with them, and we might not.’’

Despite all this, few people seem willing to question Hezbollah’s motives, method or meaning. Muslim leaders across the Arab world have dutifully supported Hezbollah and even the so-called moderate Muslim leadership in Australia are calling for Hezbollah to be de-listed as a terrorist organisation. The principle reasoning for all this support seems to be that Hezbollah are killing Jews, rather than any nuanced or considered assessment of Hezbollah’s political and religious ideology. Yet, before even more Sunnis line up behind Hezbollah and start waving their flag (as many Muslims seem to have been doing at recent rallies), perhaps somebody should ask some questions; beginning with: what on earth are we supporting when we endorse Hezbollah as freedom fighters and heroes?

Of course, all of this doesn’t mean that we should not support the people of Lebanon, but it does mean that we should resist the temptation to climb blindly onto the Hezbollah bandwagon without fully understanding who these people are and what they believe in. It is possible to support the right of Lebanon to be free of occupation and for the war to end, without also throwing one’s endorsement behind Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah, and the efforts of some possibly apocalyptic Persians to project their power across the Muslim world.